January 5, 2011

What It Will Take to Finish the Job in Afghanistan

From Time's Joe Klein:

In early December, U.S. ambassador Karl Eikenberry attended a shura in the Zhari district of Afghanistan's Kandahar province for the first time. "I've been to all 34 of Afghanistan's provinces, but I've never been here before, because the Taliban prevented it," he told the local elders. "A year ago, I would never have believed we could have this meeting, so I congratulate you on your courage."

Zhari district is in the heart of the Taliban homeland, an area so dangerous that the district governor's office, where we were meeting, is located within the local U.S. military base, Forward Operating Base Wilson. This was one of the first shura meetings there, since many of the elders had been too intimidated (or committed to the Taliban) to gather publicly before. But NATO coalition troops had successfully cleared the area over the past three months; significant weapons caches and bombmaking factories had been found. The fighting had been fierce at times, extended firefights of a sort that was rare in this hit-and-run war. Now the action had moved west, as the Taliban were pushed from their ancestral home. There were still violent incidents — roadside bombs, suicide attacks, an occasional sniper — but the area was safe enough for markets to begin reopening, and hundreds of Afghan civilians were now willing to work for $5 a day on local development projects. In the past, they had been too frightened of Taliban retribution to work for the Americans.

I had first visited the district in April, embedding with U.S. troops in the nearby town of Senjaray, and the progress was remarkable. The Afghan National Army (ANA) had arrived in force and was conducting joint patrols with the U.S. Forces — although most of the ANA troops were non-Pashtun, from the north and west, and needed interpreters to communicate with the townspeople just as the Americans did. Still, I walked several patrols with the joint forces, and we were able to enter areas that had been off-limits to U.S. troops in April.

And now, in the district governor's office, I was witnessing the first stirrings of local governance — which mostly consisted of the elders' demanding assistance from the U.S. government. Some of the demands were reasonable: the elders wanted reparations for the damage done to local homesteads in the fighting. They also wanted major improvements to the local irrigation system, which channels water from the Arghandab River into the rest of the valley, a particularly fecund agricultural area. Those projects were already under way.

But the elders, especially several large absentee landholders from Kandahar city, were looking for more: paved roads, electricity, cold-storage facilities for their crops. Eikenberry listened patiently to the requests and promised to do what he could. Earlier, at Kandahar airport, he had listened to demands for elaborate improvements to the civilian aviation facilities there. The ambassador listens to hundreds of similar requests throughout the country every day, which raises several crucial questions: After 10 years of fighting a war that now costs the U.S. upwards of $100 billion — $1 million per soldier — per year, where do we draw the line? Once we've cleared the Taliban from an area, what remaining responsibilities do we have — and what should the Afghans be doing for themselves? Do we really need to provide cold-storage facilities to the world's fourth poorest country? Given the sour U.S. economy and budget deficits, what to do about Afghanistan looms as a major domestic policy issue for President Barack Obama this year.

Since returning from Afghanistan, I've posed the "cold storage" question to several senior military, diplomatic and White House officials. It is a convenient litmus test for the larger questions: What is our long-term strategic purpose in Afghanistan? How much longer are we going to stay there? How much more money are we going to spend? There are strong arguments on both sides. "Yes, absolutely, we should provide cold-storage facilities," a senior military official told me. "They're shipping pomegranates from Kandahar airfield now. They need places to store them before shipment." (Afghan pomegranates have assumed an almost mythic value among U.S. officials, since they're the most valuable cash crop after opium poppies and a suitable replacement for them; the late Richard Holbrooke, Obama's special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, was obsessed with them.)

"But how do you make things cold?" an Administration official responded. "In order to provide cold storage, you need an electric power supply, which they don't have in Kandahar province. So do we build that too? You need transportation facilities. We're spending nearly twice as much on Afghanistan as we're spending on Homeland Security. We are going to have a serious budget discussion this year, including the Pentagon budget. We have to look closely at our priorities."
Despite such disagreements, there is surprising unanimity about the military portion of the Afghan endgame, especially after the successes of the past six months. Within two or three years — certainly by the end of 2013 — the vast majority of U.S. troops in Afghanistan will depart.

There will be a continuing NATO presence, perhaps 25,000 (mostly U.S.) troops, to train, equip and provide logistics for the Afghan National Security Forces and to continue special operations against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in both Afghanistan and northern Pakistan. Kandahar and Bagram air bases will stage the operations and remain under NATO control for the foreseeable future.

This process will begin, on schedule, in July 2011. It will start, Administration officials say, with a formal statement from President Obama — a statement similar to his announcement in March 2009 that major U.S. combat operations would end in Iraq by September 2010 and that U.S. troop levels would be reduced to 50,000. In this case, the troop withdrawals will be minuscule at first. General David Petraeus will have all of 2011 to solidify the gains NATO troops have made in the south this past year and attempt to stabilize the other main Taliban stronghold, in eastern Afghanistan. The Administration would like to see significant numbers of troops return home in 2012, which is, perhaps not coincidentally, the year of Obama's re-election campaign; Petraeus would like them to stay on for at least another year.

But even if Afghanistan can be stabilized militarily by Election Day in 2012 — an enormous if — the situation could quickly unravel if the government of President Hamid Karzai remains as corrupt and incompetent as it is now and if Afghanistan's neighbors India and Pakistan continue to see it as a pawn in their never ending enmity. Whether the U.S. should even address those long-term questions is the quiet fault line in the current Afghanistan-policy debate.

No one in the Administration who follows Afghanistan closely believes we can simply "get out," as critics propose. The U.S. has significant national-security interests in the region. The first, oft stated, is to prevent al-Qaeda from returning to a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and using it as a safe haven. But that isn't nearly as important as the problem next door in Pakistan, with a wobbly civilian government that has more than 80 nuclear weapons and a history of military coups, some of which have been led by Islamists. Obama signaled his awareness of this larger issue in an interview with me just before the 2008 election: he said that Afghanistan was part of a regional problem and that he wanted to send a special envoy to sort out the problems between India and Pakistan, especially the dispute over Kashmir. The Indians, ever jealous regarding any interference in what they consider internal affairs, were infuriated by what Obama said to me, and he was careful to drop India from the portfolio of Holbrooke, who laughingly called Kashmir "the issue that dare not speak its name."

But spoken or not, the issue remains. If tensions between India and Pakistan remain high, the likelihood of a military coup in Pakistan — perhaps one led by al-Qaeda or Pakistani Taliban sympathizers — increases. And Afghanistan has been a central theater for those tensions. Pakistan's infamous Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI) helped create the Taliban to block an Indian beachhead in Afghanistan after the Russians left in 1989. It was a clever ploy, putting Pakistan on the side of Afghanistan's Pashtun majority. In response, the Indians and others supported the Northern Alliance, a coalition of Afghanistan's various ethnic minorities. The ensuing civil war elevated the Taliban to power. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, brought the U.S. into the fray and kicked the Taliban out. Ever since, the Pakistanis have continued to quietly back the Taliban while nominally standing as a U.S. ally; they remain unconvinced that the Americans will have the patience to stay the course in Afghanistan.

Just before he died, Holbrooke told me over dinner his hopes for an Afghan endgame. (Caveat lector: Holbrooke was a close friend and my son's former boss and mentor in the State Department.) There would be no solution, he believed, if the Pakistanis didn't think the U.S. was in Afghanistan for the long haul. He despaired over working with Karzai's government, but he believed that a credible Afghan military could be built — with good reason, since the current ANA is, in effect, a larger version of the old Northern Alliance: more than 90% non-Pashtun. The U.S. has repeatedly assured the Pakistanis that NATO funding of the ANA will keep the Indians out of the picture. If the Pakistanis perceive a reduced Indian threat, they might reduce their support for the Taliban. The U.S. would foot the bill for the Afghan military: $7 billion to $8 billion per year. "But that would be chump change compared to the $100 billion we're spending now," an Administration official told me.

Holbrooke believed tensions could not be reduced without a diplomatic solution. He wanted to cap his long career with a final haggle — this one with the Taliban themselves, leading to a peace conference celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Bonn accord, which established the Karzai government in December 2001. He was at odds with Petraeus about that. The general was looking for something closer to a surrender than a negotiation from the Taliban, and his remains the default position in the Obama Administration. Holbrooke was also skeptical about the efficacy of maintaining a large U.S. force in Afghanistan, although he was curious about what sort of progress I'd find when I visited the Taliban heartland in December. (He collapsed before I could talk to him, on the morning I returned.) But Holbrooke and Petraeus did agree on one aspect of the war: cold storage. Both were convinced that there would never be real stability in Afghanistan until a strong agricultural economy returned. Having lost his faith in the Karzai administration, Holbrooke hoped a credible government could emerge from the bottom up, from local shuras like the one in Zhari that Eikenberry met with, from a rural populace that had moved on from poppies — a funding source for both the Taliban and Karzai's friends — to pomegranates and wheat.

The fighting season in Afghanistan, I've learned, begins after the opium harvest in April and ends with the marijuana harvest in late November. When I visited Senjaray in December, marijuana was drying on flat mud rooftops all over town. The fighting season in 2010 was the most successful for the U.S. since the very first push, in 2001, that dislodged the Taliban from power but allowed Osama bin Laden to escape. That initial success was not followed by any effective diplomatic, governmental or economic-development action by George W. Bush's Administration, and the Taliban returned.

The Obama Administration is in a stronger position now, but still a fragile one. The U.S. military has proved its ability to clear the Taliban from its best-defended areas; there is a fighting chance that the ANA will be able to hold those positions. But the Karzai government remains a mess, and there is diplomatic and development work still to be done. Petraeus is, once again, doing his job. But it is only half of the job to be done. If the real U.S. national-security interest in Afghanistan is the stability of Pakistan, that is a job for a master diplomat like Holbrooke — and the true portfolio is the one that Obama mentioned to me in 2008: Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

Obama handled Holbrooke badly, although Richard was — as his good friends know — a handful. According to Leslie H. Gelb, the president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations and Holbrooke's closest friend, the President undercut Holbrooke from the very beginning. After Holbrooke read Karzai the riot act, telling him that he would have to clean up his government and that funds would no longer flow with no strings attached as they did during the Bush Administration, Karzai called the White House and said he would no longer deal with Holbrooke. Instead of telling Karzai that he would deal with the U.S. President's special representative or with no one at all, the Obama Administration caved. Holbrooke wasn't part of the President's traveling party on two trips to Afghanistan; Karzai was massaged by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Senator John Kerry instead; and the Afghan President treated both Eikenberry and Petraeus with disdain.

The question of who will replace Holbrooke is now front and center. There isn't much appetite for the job among senior diplomats. I'm told that Clinton asked the eminently qualified Thomas Pickering, former ambassador to the U.N., to take the job but was turned down.

Obama may get lucky. It is quite possible that he will have the appearance of an Afghan solution in place, with tens of thousands of troops returning home, as he runs for re-election in 2012. But if he really wants to stabilize South Asia and make it less likely that Pakistan's nuclear arsenal falls into the hands of terrorists, he is going to have to hire a diplomat as skilled as Petraeus is at warfare and give him (or her) the same amount of authority that Petraeus has. An unstable Pakistan is potentially the world's greatest security threat. It can't be fudged. It has to be faced.

One doesn’t need to hear the names drop to know that Joe Klein is a Washington insider and White House homer, but it does help prove the point. That said, Obama will not “get lucky” in 2012, at least not because of the unstable politico-military situation on the ground. 2011 and 2012 will see fierce fighting, which means casualties throughout the election cycle. The Taliban will try its best to disrupt Obama’s election rhetoric.

The more probable scenario is a relative fall in winter fighting, the trend that allowed Obama to plow ahead with his surge in December. Klein has it right about 2011 - minimal withdrawals. 2013 not so much. A residual force of 25,000 troops would require 70,000 to pull out in 2012 and 2013, a highly unlikely scenario that places too much stress on Afghanistan’s military and police. 50,000 sounds like the low bar of any realistic exit strategy, 75,000 the high.

More on Afghanistan soon.


  1. Gates just sent 1,400 more troops.

  2. My heart sank as I read your post, James since I had read Klein's piece earlier on Time site. But your description 'White House homer' succinctly encompassed my original reaction. Interesting all the same, and I will cross reference to your site.

  3. Homer aside, Klein's piece is a solid source of information. One can see how conflicted he feels towards Afghanistan and the Pentagon, given that Klein is a huge Obama supporter and wishes to see his re-election. If America's economy doesn't improve by 2012, only a disastrous turn to the war will negate his political campaign.

    Anything less than visual success can't help though.